Responsive fathering has been associated with positive child outcomes. While there is a great variation among men in terms of how sensitive they are to their children, there had been no biological factor ever determined that can predict paternal involvement. A new study found that both man's level of testosterone and empathy contribute to a man's parenting behavior.
Researchers from the University of Michigan found that baby cries are strong stimuli that can elicit multiple types of emotional responses, including how responsive they can be to their children. These responses are usually accompanied by hormonal changes, such as empathy with decreased testosterone and aggravation with increased testosterone.
Previous studies had investigated testosterone changes in response to father-child interaction, but were vague in finding supports whether the rise and fall of testosterone can predict man's fathering skills.
In the study, researchers led by Brenda Volling, professor of psychology in UM, followed a total of 175 men whose wives were pregnant with their second child. Each father was separated for a short time from his child - who also displayed discomfort not seeing his or her father. Samples of saliva were also acquired from all fathers to measure their testosterone levels.
To evaluate parenting skills, fathers and children were asked to complete another task where three toys in separate boxes were presented to them, each having a corresponding instruction. The fathers were given five minutes for each toy to teach their children how to perform the tasks as instructed in each card.
Researchers then correlate levels of testosterone with the behaviors of the fathers in the two activities. They noted that the decrease in testosterone and father's empathy had influenced how they responded to their children in times of distress. As the fathers saw their children crying and had empathized with them, some men had a decline in testosterone. In contrast, when fathers were much of annoyed than sympathetic, most of them showed an increase in testosterone.
Researchers also found that those men who had larger declines in testosterone during the separation task were more supportive and sensitive in the second task. However, there were no falling-off of testosterones in fathers during the interaction task, as their children also did not manifest any signs of longing and distress.
"We are not arguing that universal declines in testosterone will always be associated with 'good fathering," says Volling, also a director of the Center for Human Growth and Development, in a press release. "Perhaps increases in men's testosterone may be necessary to protect the infant from harm in some situations. We are just beginning to understand the complex relations between men's hormones and fathering."
The study appears in the journal Developmental Psychology.